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Three Former Bucks Coaches Headed to Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame

George Karl, Larry Costello, and Del Harris each got the call to Springfield

Milwaukee Bucks Coach George Karl with Ray Allen, 2001 Playoffs SetNumber: X63202 TK2 R1 F1

Lost among the end-of-season melee around here was the news last week that not one, not two, but three former Bucks coaches are being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame! The first news came down last Thursday as it often does, from Shams Charania:

Bucks fans my age and older have some fond memories of Karl, who was so popular among the fanbase when the Light It Up years were in full swing that the Bradley Center crowd gave him standing ovations during pre-game introductions. Of course, his lasting legacy remains the 2001 team that came one win away from the NBA Finals. His Milwaukee tenure ended a bit sourly: he missed the Playoffs in 2002 after the ECF run the year prior, then advocated for the regrettable (to say the least) Ray Allen-Gary Payton trade, then got fired after a first-round exit to eventual East champs New Jersey in six games. However, in recent years he’s expressed fondness for both Allen and the Bucks organization, plus admitted his error in judgment with the trade.

Though Karl’s 205 wins (against 173 losses, a .542 winning percentage) is third all-time in Bucks history behind Hall-of-Famer Don Nelson and Costello, he makes it to Springfield based on some bigger merits. After four mostly-bad seasons as a young coach with Cleveland and Golden State in the 80s, he helmed some seriously good Sonics teams in the 90s upon his 1991 hiring in Seattle. He even took one to the NBA Finals, where they ran into what many think is the best team ever: the 72-win 1996 Bulls. After leaving Milwaukee, he caught on in Denver where he also coached some great teams led by Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, making one Western Conference Finals amid four straight seasons of at least 50 wins. Even with a craptastic two-year stretch in Sacramento to end his career, his 1175 career victories slot him in between legends Pat Riley and Phil Jackson for sixth place on the NBA’s coaching leaderboard.

Karl made it into the Hall in the traditional way, just like this years’ player nominees Manu Ginobili and Tim Hardaway. Harris and Costello, though, were elected by the Contributor Committee. You can check out the other nominees here, by the way.

Nelson hired Del Harris in 1986 as an assistant and when his boss left for Golden State after that season, Harris took over. Already a veteran head coach, Harris took a Rockets team that finished a game below .500 (can you believe that?) in 1981 to the NBA Finals, where they somehow managed to take Larry Bird’s Celtics to six games. He led the Bucks for four years and compiled a 191-154 (.554 winning percentage) and took them to the playoffs each season, only winning one series in 1989. He resigned 17 games into the 1992 season, but found himself back in the coaching ranks three years later with the Lakers, whom he also took to a conference finals. His NBA head coaching career ended in 1999—he then became an assistant again, starting with his old boss Nelson’s staff in Dallas—with 556 wins, good for 29th all-time.

Larry Costello is obviously best known in both Milwaukee and NBA history for bringing the franchise its first—and until recently only—NBA title in 1971. The first head coach in Bucks history, Costello was hired the season after hanging it up as a player. After winning 27 games in the expansion year, the Bucks happened to draft a center who went by Lew Alcindor, catapulting them to the top of the league. After winning 56 games in his second season, Costello won over 60 the next three years, including a 20-game win streak in 1970–71 which set an NBA record at that time. Their title that season still stands as the fastest expansion team to win a championship in any major American sport, needing only three seasons to accomplish the feat. In addition to the 1971 appearance, he also guided Milwaukee to the 1974 NBA Finals, losing in seven games to Boston. Costello stepped down after a 3-15 start in 1976, replaced by his assistant Nelson. As the leader of the Bucks, his 410 wins are second all-time behind Nelson, and his winning percentage is third after Nelson (barely) and potentially-future-Hall-of-Fame (look at his case, doesn’t he belong?) current head coach Mike Budenholzer. His 430 wins (against 300 losses) rank 43rd all-time among all coaches.

Bucks legend and current analyst Marques Johnson was up for the Hall again this year in his fourth year on the finalist ballot, but didn’t make it once again. Here’s hoping he finally gets his due in 2023. Nevertheless, congrats to the second, third, and fourth Bucks coaches to make it to Springfield!